The Invisible Intimacy Of Women's Work


What do at-home caregivers and executive assistants have in common? They toil, often on the sidelines, know the intimate details of their employers’ lives — and are usually women.

As Katherine Rosman notes in a Wall Street Journal story today,

An assistant is involved in the nitty-gritty of a company’s operations. She (and she is often though not always a she) may listen to her boss’ voicemail messages, if she’s not listening in on calls directly. She is privy to email correspondence and proprietary information. At some companies, assistants sign nondisclosure agreements. Others rely on honor and discretion.

It’s not just that the executive assistant is usually a she — it’s that odds are that she is working for a he. In this peculiarly intimate yet usually professional relationship, a woman follows a time-honored tradition (in the case of executive assistants, more transitory than it used to be) of making everything possible yet fading into the background.

That’s a little bit like being a domestic worker — a nanny or an elder caregiver who knows most of the secrets, makes things happen, but is often invisible — but the major difference is that at home, women’s work isn’t usually part of the formal employment economy, at least not in the United States. And whereas an executive assistant can be highly compensated, a nanny or maid is subject to the whims and generosity (or lack thereof) of an employer, and is rarely given overtime or paid vacation. In practice, that employer is often a woman.

The experiences of the women in Jennifer Gonnerman’s story on domestic workers organizing in New York reflect the particular nuances of intimate work: warm attachment to the children they’re caring for, notwithstanding what their parents may be like, often blurry lines between work and life, at times blatant disrespect from employers.

Due to the organizing efforts of many of these women, who are overwhelmingly immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, the nation’s first Domestic Workers Bill Of Rights may be passed:

Last week, the State Senate passed a bill that would provide for one day off a week, six paid holidays, seven sick days, five vacation days, and notice of termination. It would also strengthen the rules about overtime pay. (Although nannies are supposed to be subject to overtime laws, not all employers pay time and a half for extra hours worked.) If this bill can be reconciled with one that passed the Assembly last year-and Governor Paterson signs it-New York will become the first state to enact a bill of rights for domestic workers.

Why has this work slipped through the legal cracks up until now? In addition to the many contemporary reasons — a massive range of work arrangements and immigration statuses, the logistical difficulty of organizing so many diffuse employees, the general devaluation of “women’s work” — there is also history. When most workers were granted broad protections by Roosevelt in the 1930s, Gonnerman writes, scare advertising warned, “Housewives beware! If the Wages and Hours Bill goes through, you will have to pay your Negro girl eleven dollars a week.” Roosevelt subsequently made a deal with Southern Democrats to leave “domestic help” out of the bill.

It wasn’t the last time that a false opposition would be set up between domestic workers and the women (but somehow never the men) who employ them. A few years ago, Caitlin Flanagan argued in The Atlantic that such arrangements had “saved the women’s movement,” because feminism’s incomplete victories had meant that women were working outside the home, but that men weren’t necessarily picking up the slack at home. Enter an influx of women from the developing world whose work outside the home took place inside the homes of more privileged women.

One of the many barriers to progressing towards full rights for these women — and respect for their work — is the fact that too often, their rights are seen as a zero sum game versus putative “housewives,” in ways that are both tangible and intangible. Working women are made to feel guilty for working outside the home and are, at least in debate, expected to find “other arrangements”; the women who do that work for a living are generally erased in part as a function of that equation. The men are essentially given a free pass.

But Flanagan-style divisiveness implies both that women who can afford to hire nannies are inherently indifferent to the rights of the women they employ and that this is somehow feminism’s fault. And yet Gonnerman quotes several employers of nannies in New York who support the bill, not least because they want clear guidelines in the face of tremendous ambiguity. Moreover, prominent feminists like Gloria Steinem and Barbara Ehrenreich lent their support and press-friendly names to the campaign, and Ehrenreich has often written about the topic.

Still, in this tangle of class, race, and gender, of work and family, it’s no wonder the relationships can be so fraught. At Feministing, Rose Afriyie recently drew attention to an Essence article (not online) in which Veronica Chambers complains about being mistaken for her own daughter’s nanny, despite her class markers:

This past spring, when I took cupcakes to Flora’s school for her birthday, the mother of one of her friends looked at me—dressed in a Lanvin blouse, jeans and Jimmy Choo heels—and said, “I hate when these working women send their nannies for their kids’ birthday. I mean, really.”

Afriyie notes, “The fact is, Veronica never mentions that condescending comments aren’t just inappropriate when they misidentify a biological mother, they are also unjustifiable if they are meant to pass judgment on a profession that many wage-earning mothers rely on.”

And, of course, on the women who actually work in it.

The Nanny Uprising [NYM]
The Assistant Who Says ‘No’ To Jack Welch [WSJ]
Domestic Workers United [Official Site]
Can The Nanny Speak? [Feministing]

Related: Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, And Sex Workers In The New Economy
How Serfdom Saved The Women’s Movement [The Atlantic]

Photo via Feliks Kogan/Shutterstock

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